Movie Reviews: 'Florence Foster Jenkins,' 'Pete's Dragon,' 'Cafe Society' and 'Sausage Party'

  • Written by Catholic News Service
  • Published in Movies & TV
Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg star in a scene from the movie "Florence Foster Jenkins." Photo: CNS/Paramount Meryl Streep and Simon Helberg star in a scene from the movie "Florence Foster Jenkins." Photo: CNS/Paramount

Recently reviewed by Catholic News Service

Florence Foster Jenkins

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - Like the World War II-era New York socialite it profiles, "Florence Foster Jenkins" (Paramount), a charmingly eccentric blend of comedy and drama, has its heart in the right place.

Yet moral complications are integral to this fact-based story, and they limit its appropriate audience, as a general matter, to discerning adults.

That's a shame, because other objectionable elements in director Stephen Frears' film are few, and this is, overall, a deeply humane tale from which young people might benefit.

Not content with her role as a generous and influential patron of Gotham's music scene, Foster (Meryl Streep) yearns to take to the stage as a singer. The only difficulty is that she is spectacularly untalented. Not just bad, excruciating to a point that's unavoidably comic.

Attempting to square this circle, and protecting Foster from the truth about her voice, becomes a full-time job for her husband, failed British actor St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). He shamelessly bribes the city's newspaper critics, and assiduously restricts ticket sales to a small circle of friends willing to focus on Foster's sincere enthusiasm rather than the outrageously awful effects she produces.

Bayfield gains an ally in his efforts when sympathetic young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) comes on board as Foster's new accompanist. But this duo of guardians faces heightened stakes when Foster insists on booking Carnegie Hall for a night.

With characteristic deftness, Streep gets across both the full ridiculousness and the touching pathos of Foster's situation. But her complex marital arrangement, and Bayfield's concurrent relationship with his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), whom he maintains in a separate household, require careful sifting.

For reasons not to be revealed for fear of a spoiler, Bayfield is not the straight-out adulterer the description of his lifestyle given above might make him seem. There are circumstances beyond his control that mitigate, though they cannot fully excuse, the guilt of his actions.

In fact, Bayfield's character evokes just as multifaceted a response from moviegoers as does Foster's.

While his unusual love for his wife appears genuine enough, viewers are bound to ask themselves to what degree it's tainted by the desire to share in her wealth. Nicholas Martin's script -- and Grant's performance -- successfully maintain suspense on this point for much of the running time.

The ethical conflicts at work here invite more compassion than condemnation. So parents willing to make them the starting point for a discussion about the nature of marriage and the vagaries of human love may be inclined to allow especially insightful older teens to attend.

The film contains mature themes, including adultery and venereal disease, a morning-after bedroom scene, vague references to homosexuality, at least one profanity and a couple of uses each of crude and crass language.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

Pete's Dragon movie still
Oakes Fegley stars in a scene from the movie "Pete's Dragon." Photo: CNS/Disney

Pete's Dragon

By Joseph McAleer, Catholic News Service 

NEW YORK - The classic boy-and-his-dog story assumes outsized proportions in "Pete's Dragon" (Disney), a warmhearted fantasy adventure suitable for teens and their elders.

This "reimagining" of the 1977 Disney musical bears little resemblance to its predecessor, which featured a singing troika of Helen Reddy, Red Buttons and Shelley Winters.

This go-round, song and dance have been jettisoned, and hokeyness gives way to thrilling action and tear-jerking moments. Star power includes Robert Redford, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Dr. McCoy of the current "Star Trek" franchise, Karl Urban.

The eponymous creature, moreover, is no longer a mere cartoon but a 3-D computer-generated Brobdingnagian wonder, covered in green fur and possessing the habits and charm of a basset hound.

Redford stars as Meacham, a Pacific Northwest woodcarver who also serves as the story's narrator. On a lonely road deep in a remote forest, a toddler named Pete (Levi Alexander) is orphaned by a tragic accident. He wanders into the woods and is adopted by a dragon whom he calls, not Puff, but Elliott.

Fast-forward six years, and Pete (now Oakes Fegley) is living happily in the company of his jolly green giant, much in the manner of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book."

Meacham has long entertained locals with yarns of a monster in their midst. His daughter Grace (Howard), a forest ranger, is tolerant of his eccentric notions, but unconvinced.

In a strangely incongruous situation for a children's movie, Grace already lives with her logger fiance, Jack (Wes Bentley), and his daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). The precise nature of Grace and Jack's relationship is, of course, never specified. So it's possible to give it an innocent interpretation. But the inclusion of this arrangement sadly bars endorsement for impressionable kids.

Jack's brother and business partner, Gavin (Urban), hears suspicious rumblings in the woods and gets ideas about going hunting.

"Pete's Dragon" proceeds amiably on a predictable path with a heavy environmental theme. Echoes of "E.T. the Extra Terrestrial" and even "King Kong" are apparent as man and nature collide. It's a very tall tale, but a pleasantly fanciful one, directed at a gentle pace by David Lowery ("Ain't Them Bodies Saints").

The film contains apparent premarital cohabitation, potentially frightening action sequences and a handful of mild oaths.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG.

Cafe Society movie still
Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg star in a scene from the movie "Cafe Society." Photo: CNS/Lionsgate

Cafe Society

By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - "Love is an emotion, and emotions aren't rational," a character muses midway through writer-director Woody Allen's seriocomic "Cafe Society" (Lionsgate).

This variation on "the heart wants what the heart wants" -- a saying ultimately traceable, in a slightly different form, to an Emily Dickinson poem -- is not a lucid theme here.

Allen's love triangle, perpetually set in orange sunlight in both its Hollywood and New York settings to evoke nostalgia, whirls its central characters through several painful romantic entanglements.

These men and women are all one-dimensional archetypes, however. Sincerity, moreover, gives way to Allen's one-liners, and no one becomes any wiser for their experiences.

In 1936, Bronx-bred Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), who no longer wants to help out in his father Marty's (Ken Stott) jewelry store, decides to leave his supportive family to find a job with his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a powerful agent out in Tinseltown.

Phil fixes contracts, drops names and solves such dilemmas as "Adolphe Menjou is threatening to walk off the set!" He doesn't have much beyond menial errands for Bobby. But to help the lad acclimate to his new surroundings, Phil introduces him to his lissome secretary, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).

Bobby and Vonnie quickly hit it off, although he doesn't realize that the journalist boyfriend of whom she often speaks is actually Uncle Phil, who wants to leave his wife. No one in Hollywood, including Nebraska-born Vonnie, is the person he or she appears to be -- although Vonnie is very clear-eyed about her life choices.

When Bobby learns the truth, he gives up on L.A., returning to Gotham to manage a new nightclub owned by his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll). This leads to more glamorous nightlife and eventually to marriage with shimmering blond heiress Veronica (Blake Lively).

Allen, who provides a lot of needless narration in lieu of plot, stages all the necessary confrontations and arguments. He then brings the whole ensemble together at the end to ponder their decisions and the melancholy they've brought on themselves.

Even so, any sustained, serious engagement with topics like marital fidelity gets lost amid Allen's trademark humor.

The film contains bloodless gun violence, mature themes, including adultery and prostitution, a drug reference, several uses of profanity and at least one crude term.

The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13.

Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

Sausage Party movie stillFood characters are shown in a scene from the animated movie "Sausage Party." Photo: CNS/Sony Pictures
Sausage Party

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

NEW YORK - If everyone in the world would just abandon belief in God, peace would prevail and life would be one long, joyous, pansexual, narcotics-fueled love-in.

That's the moronic message of "Sausage Party" (Columbia), a disgusting spitball of an animated comedy from directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan.

The supposedly humorous effect of having cartoon characters, who would normally be associated with children's films, spout obscenities has, of course, been aimed at before in Hollywood. The big-screen version of "Fritz the Cat," for instance, dates back to 1972. But to have such figures push an atheist agenda while glorifying the basest forms of carnality would appear to represent a new low for the entertainment industry.

This nadir is reached by way of a story about the inhabitants of a suburban supermarket, most prominently a sausage named Frank (voice of Seth Rogen, who also co-wrote) and his girlfriend, a bun called Brenda (voice of Kristen Wiig). Together with their fellow shelf dwellers, Frank and Brenda believe that an ecstatic existence awaits them in "the Great Beyond" once human shoppers, whom they worship as gods, choose them and bring them home.

Among other things, the couple look forward to being released from their respective packages and united in the culinary equivalent of sexual bonding. Viewed with a leer, this prospect becomes the excuse for endless smirking, sophomoric wordplay.

But then a returned jar of honey mustard (voiced by Danny McBride), traumatized by his experience beyond the store's walls, reveals how people actually treat their edibles. Though most of the other products refuse to believe his harrowing account, Frank is bold -- and intellectually honest -- enough to set out on a quest for the truth.

An insult to believers of every stripe, this libido idolizing film -- whose cast also includes Michael Cera, Jonah Hill and Salma Hayek (as a lesbian taco) -- portrays all religion as a con job that leads to violent divisiveness and sexual repression. Thus the eventual overthrow of the store's prevailing mythology is celebrated by a mass orgy that's supposed to count as a happy ending.

The film contains pervasive blasphemy, a debased view of human sexuality, including a frivolous attitude toward perverse acts, graphic obscene images, benignly viewed drug use, about a half-dozen instances of profanity and relentless rough and crude language.

The Catholic News Service classification is O -- morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted.

Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.